Egypt gripped by social unrest

By Jean Shaoul
13 May 2010

On May 11, the Egyptian parliament approved a presidential decree extending the state of emergency for a further two-year period.

It follows a rising tide of political protests, demonstrations and sit-ins outside parliament in recent days, with some protesters camping out on the pavement for weeks.

On May 3, 100 political activists and opposition members of parliament gathered in Cairo’s downtown Tahrir Square to march to the People’s Assembly some 300 metres away to demand political reforms. They were calling for an end to the emergency laws that have been in place since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and which are up for renewal later this month. They were also demanding the release of prisoners of conscience, and constitutional reforms that would break President Hosni Mubarak’s monopoly on power.

The emergency laws outlaw demonstrations, allow the police to jail political activists, opponents and journalists, sanction long detentions without trial and searches without warrants. Recent restrictions on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have enabled the government to clamp down on trade unions and labour organisations.

The Minister of the Interior, Habib Al Adli, declared the march illegal as it did not have permission required under emergency law. Hundreds of police surrounded the demonstrators, penned them in the public garden and beat up protesters who tried to break through the security barrier.

Hassan Nashaat al-Qasas, a member of parliament and of the governing party, called on the interior minister to kill the protesters, saying, “Instead of using water hoses to disperse them, the police ought to shoot them; they deserve it.”

Al Qasas added, “In case a street demonstration which was licensed by the Interior Ministry becomes a big danger to security, police officers, instead of using water hoses to disperse it, should shoot directly ... execute ... execute because demonstrators in this case are outlaws.”

A large group of disabled people in wheelchairs have been camped out for nearly two months, demanding jobs, housing, special services, transport and health care.

On May 2, 1,000 political activists and workers demonstrated against Mubarak’s government, occupying Hussein Hegazi Street for three hours. They were demanding an increase in the national minimum wage to E£1,200 ($222).

Egypt’s minimum wage was set at E£35 ($6.50) a month in 1984 and has never been changed. When bonuses, incentives and annual increases are included, the minimum monthly salary of government employees and public sector workers is about E£289 ($53). Many private sector employees earn much less. Even when all incentives and bonuses are included, this is still too low to meet the most basic living expenses. As prices have risen and pay has remained unchanged, at least 44 percent of Egypt’s 82 million population now live below the poverty line of $2 per day.

A study published last June by the Egyptian Centre for Economic Studies (ECES) concluded, “When minimum wage is related to per capita GNP (gross national product), it appears that this rate has decreased from nearly 60 percent in 1984 to 19.4 percent in 1991/92 and further to 13 percent in 2007.... When the ratio of minimum wage to per capita GNP is compared to other countries, it appears amongst the lowest.”

Egypt’s minimum wage is just 13 percent of per capita GNP, compared with 26 percent in Spain, 51 percent in France and 78 percent in Turkey. ECES called for the minimum wage to be set at 25 percent of per capita GNP.

While Egypt established the National Council for Wages (NCW) in 2003 to bring salaries in line with the cost of living, employers, including the government that employs 6.3 million, have lobbied hard to prevent any increase in the minimum monthly wage beyond E£400 ($74).

Last March ECES secured a court order, ordering the government to set a new minimum wage of about $222 a month for a family of five. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif has refused to even discuss a rise and protests have mounted.

Without price controls, even an E£733 minimum wage is insufficient as inflation has soared. Inflation reached 23 percent in July 2008 and remained high throughout 2009. Food prices have risen astronomically. Meat prices rose by 10 percent in the last month, leading to a one-day meat boycott by restaurants in protest. This was due in part to a rise in animal foodstuffs last year, which led Egyptian farmers to slaughter some of their livestock. After an initial glut, prices soared. The cost of imported meat has risen and meat traders have profiteered from the shortages. Earlier this year, a shortage of cooking oil in government shops led to a soaring black market.

Egyptians are forced to work multiple jobs because salaries are so low. Last year, a survey of 73 cities worldwide by UBS, the Swiss investment bank, showed that residents of Cairo worked the most hours—2,373 per year compared to an average of 1,902 in the other cities.

Two years ago there were riots when the price of bread rose by just a few cents. A dozen people were killed across Egypt in clashes with security forces.

It is low wages that account for just 36 percent of Egypt’s GNP that has led to the escalation of strikes and demonstrations.

While these protests are small, they reflect the social inequality that lies at the heart of Egypt’s worsening economic and political tensions. The government has embraced market reforms, Special Economic Zones and Qualifying Industrial Zones in a bid to become the “China of the Mediterranean”. Egypt’s low wages, anti-trade union legislation and systematic abuse of human rights have made it an attractive recipient of foreign direct investment in Africa, second only to South Africa. Foreign direct investment from China reached more than $500 million by 2009, while China is expected to become Egypt’s largest trading partner in 2010.

Egypt’s economy grew by 7 percent a year before the onset of the global financial meltdown in 2008—compared to a 3.9 percent rate in 2000-2001. This year, GDP is projected to grow by about 5.4 percent. But this has benefited only a thin stratum, the business and military elite that form the government’s social base.

The protests in central Cairo that are now an almost daily occurrence follow a rising tide of strikes for higher wages. According to a report by the Solidarity Centre, a trade union sponsored group in Washington, 1.7 million workers engaged in 1,900 “strikes and other forms of protest” from 2004 through 2008. Joel Benin, the author of the report and a professor of Middle East history at Stanford University, said, “The current wave of protests is erupting from the largest social movement Egypt has witnessed in more than half a century.”

Estimates for 2009 suggest that there were 1,000 strikes and other forms of industrial action.

Most of the strikes, sit-ins and protests are small and isolated. They are rarely supported by the official trade unions leadership, which acts as an arm of government, and not organised at either national or local level, being typically local initiatives. While most of the strikes are in the public sector, the number of private sector strikes, where there are few trade unions, has also risen. Recent strikes have included textile workers, traditionally the most militant section of workers in Egypt, municipal tax collectors, transport and communications, building materials, construction and food processing workers.

In a recent development, some strikers have travelled to Cairo to gain wider attention and demand that the government takes action to support their claims.

In February, workers from the recently privatised Tanta Flax and Oils Company staged a strike near the cabinet building in downtown Cairo for 15 days. This was followed by a series of strikes near the People’s Assembly by public sector workers. While some of these strikes were called off, many are still continuing in front of the parliament and have become a near permanent fixture, with sidewalks strewn with strikers’ blankets, plastic bags, clothes and other items.

The government has made small concessions to some of the strikers’ demands in a bid to head off wider social unrest, raising civil service salaries by 10 percent, but not the bonuses and incentive pay that can turn an E£300 ($55) per month wage into E£1,000 pounds ($180).

The government is determined to prevent these economic protests turning political and the leaders of the industrial action from joining forces with those demanding political change. Mubarak made a remarkable admission and acknowledged in a speech last Saturday, a public holiday, that there was significant poverty and social problems. But he made it absolutely clear that he would brook no opposition to his government.

“I sincerely welcome the interplay in the society as long as it abides by laws and the Constitution, and is intended to realize the interest of Egypt”, he said. “This interaction should not turn into a conflict or a confrontation and we have to be aware of such a turn.”

“In this delicate period there can be no room for those who confuse change with chaos”, he threatened.

The protests come at a crucial point for Egypt. There are elections for the Upper House later this month, the Lower House in November and presidential elections in September next year. While the 82-year-old Mubarak, who is not in good health, has not indicated whether he will stand in the elections, it is widely assumed that he is grooming his son, Gamal Mubarak, for the presidency, a move that is deeply unpopular. Recent constitutional amendments make it impossible for anyone not from Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party to run for the presidency.